Our right to open records

James Madison, a founding father and our fourth president, once wrote, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” This quote, the opening statement from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s introductory letter in the 2012 Public Information Handbook, speaks to the rationale behind the Texas Public Information Act. Formerly known as the Open Records Act, the law entitles each person to access information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees, except in cases expressly provided by law.

Under the law, public institutions, including the University of Texas System, are required to respond to open records requests for public information. When a person submits a written request to a governmental body, the public information act then requires that the body respond “promptly;” and the UT System further guarantees “customer-friendly service” in its handling of such requests.

All of this is consistent with the law’s mission to enforce “the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people.” But recent actions involving members of the UT System Board of Regents and legislators at the Capitol reveal that open records requests can easily be wielded as a weapon. In recent months a battle has consumed the regents and Texas legislators; open records requests have been filed at a dizzying pace. Regent Wallace L. Hall Jr., who led efforts seeking an additional, external review of the UT Law School’s forgivable loan program, drew attention when he requested thousands of documents from UT-Austin to conduct his own private investigation. Last week The Texas Tribune revealed that Hall had failed to disclose at least six federal and state lawsuits on his application to become a regent, as is required.

On March 28, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, made an open records request as a private citizen that the UT System provide her with documents pertaining to UT President William Powers Jr. and various regents. In response, Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell requested permission from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to withhold the information. Although the Public Information Act requires that responses be made promptly, Powell’s request could postpone his having to forfeit documents by up to 45 days, if Abbott denies his request. Zaffirini, in turn, cried foul, saying, “While the specific regents and personnel involved in this response process have employed countless delay tactics to date, this one is not only the most innovative, but also the most outrageous.” On Monday, Zaffirini filed a bill that would clarify the open records process and require the disclosure of documents that could “intrude and unduly interfere upon the power of a governing board of any agency within the executive branch established by the Texas Constitution to conduct its activities and fulfill its legal mandates and responsibilities.”

The Texas Public Information Act, considered a model for open records laws across the nation, is a point of pride for our state and for democracy as a whole. In a guest column in The Texas Tribune, Regent Alex Cranberg writes that he is “in favor of disclosure to the extent required by law and, beyond that, to the extent reasonably possible.” Open records requests are paramount in a democratic system that prides itself on transparency, and the need for their availability eclipses their value as weapons in comparatively short term political fights of the moment. An attempt like Powell’s to circumvent the legal procedure creates an appearance of being above the law. That appearance, false or not, threatens the reputation of the entire UT System.